When I was 12 years old, my mother, ever a devout Seventh-day Adventist, nearly joined a cult. The cult was predicting the destruction of the Adventist church and the slaying of most of its members by angels of God in a three-day period. This was to be followed immediately by the miraculous transportation of the cult members, then to be numbering 144,000, to the Holy Land, where they would live in perfect peace in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ. To join the cult, we would need to sell all of our earthly belongings, turn the proceeds over to the cult, and move to a commune in Waco, Texas. Yes, weird but true, and here’s the story.
Sometime in 1957 an old friend of my mother (and maybe an old flame from before she got married) introduced her to a small group of Adventists that were holding clandestine meetings on Saturday afternoons to listen to tape recordings of sermons by a renegade Adventist, Victor Houteff. A Bulgarian immigrant who had converted to the SDA faith in 1919, Mr. Houteff had ultimately declared himself to be a true prophet of God and had written a couple of books describing the prophecies that God had revealed to him. The books were known as the Shepherd’s Rod, vols. 1 and 2. Mr. Houteff had died in 1955, but his wife had taken over leadership of the group and was carrying on her husband’s ministry.
The local group that my mother joined met more less in secret because the movement, officially known as the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists but more informally referred to as the Shepherd’s Rod, were personae non gratae within the larger SDA church. I think my mother was a bit embarrassed about her interest in the movement and didn’t want her friends to know, at least not until she had decided definitely whether or not to join.
Members of the local group would take turns hosting the meetings on those Saturday afternoons, and my mother would drag my sisters and me to the meetings unless we could come up with some sort of excuse not to go. And sometimes my mother hosted the meetings, in which case there was no escape. This was in the late 1950s, so there were no videos and no cleverly constructed powerpoint slides. Instead, the sermons were tape recordings that one member of the group brought and played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. These recordings were long, generally over two hours, and, to be kind, Mr. Houteff was not a gifted speaker.
Mr. Houteff had somehow linked some Old Testament prophetic writings, primarily from the book of Ezekiel, to other prophecies in the book of Revelation in the New Testament. A lot of these prophesies involved visions of mysterious beasts (nightmares, I suppose) that the Biblical prophets had described. Mr. Houteff had decided that these prophesies had a double meaning. One obvious meaning related directly to the Hebrew people of the OT prophets’ time that were living in exile and were hoping to return to Palestine. The other meaning, Mr. Houteff declared, related to our time and referred to events leading up to Christ’s soon Second Coming. The only fascinating thing about these meetings was that someone had created elaborate drawings of the beasts featured in the prophesies and had compiled them on a flipchart that measured perhaps 2x3 feet. The chart included not only these fantastic beasts that were sporting numerous dangerous-looking horns but also included timelines that Mr. Houteff had interpreted as leading up to the last days before Christ’s Second Coming. They were pretty amazing, actually.
The heart of Mr. Houteff’s message was that God was warning the Adventists and instructing them to accept and act upon Mr. Houteff’s prophesies, or else . . . . This would require that they cash out all of their assets and turn the proceeds over to the Davidian church leadership. They then were to move to a commune that the Davidians had established in Waco, Texas. Once 144,000 (a number mentioned in Revelation) Adventists had joined the Davidians, but no later than April 22, 1959, an “angel of the Lord” would, over a three-day period, slay (as in “kill”) all of the remaining Adventists. Shortly after that the 144,000 would be magically transported to the Holy Land, which God would take from the Israelis and Palestinians to give to the Davidians. There they would live in peace to await Christ’s Second Coming. Wow.
That my mother was seriously considering doing this was very scary to me. It wasn’t just that we would lose all of our belongings--we frankly didn’t have much anyway. It was that all of my friends and classmates at the Battle Creek Academy would know that we had done this. And it would mean that we would be moving from Battle Creek to Waco, Texas.
So how close did we come to doing this? At that time I was very much into maps and I do recall talking to one of the other local members of the group about the best routes for the drive down to Waco. But in the end my mother and father just couldn’t bring themselves to make the commitment. I recall my mother saying that she simply could not accept that all of the good people she knew in the church were wrong and that God would slay them. And that was the end of it for us. After a year and a half. We never talked about it much after that, either among ourselves and certainly not with others.
And what happened to the group? Rumor was that about 1,200 people found their way to Waco, far short of the projected 144,000. And April 22, 1959 came and went without the slaying of all of the other Adventists. (Whew.) At that point the cult largely fell apart, or at least splintered into smaller factions, one of which called themselves the Branch Davidians. Yes, the same Branch Davidians that later featured David Koresh and that were effectively wiped out by ATF and FBI forces in 1993, resulting in the death of over 80 Davidians and 4 federal officers. There is still an active website for the Davidian organization, but it is difficult to determine how many actual members remain.
I was 14 when this episode came to a head in early 1959 and still thought of myself as an Adventist. But I do believe that the exposure to the bizarre belief system of this cult helped to point out for me the dangers of belief based on authority. So that’s a positive.
© 2013 John M. Phillips